Abandoning form, discovering a friend

My husband and I are having a little disagreement. It’s nothing serious, really.  I love him completely.  We talk every day.  Sometimes our chats are simple.  Shared appreciation for a good meal, an interesting show, the way our son is growing.  My husband is a philosopher, a seeker.  He has a brilliant mind and has survived bone shattering experiences, soul shattering experiences.  He has a rich imagination and could write amazing stories with incredible detail infused with intuitive perception and knowledge.

I love that about him.  Those qualities make for great conversations and a beautiful relationship.  He encourages my desire to write.  He probably wishes I would write a book.

So I thought, why not at least make an attempt. I started a novel that is well into a second chapter.  I feel incompetent, but he continues to be encouraging, showing enthusiasm for the subject and the concept and the way I’m working it out. He’s been a huge support. But the problem is that right now I want to give up.  The novel in question probably completely died after last night, when I discovered a pinterest story board created by a NaNoWriMo author.   Her fantastic idea (really, brilliant! No sarcasm intended) to use a collection of gathered photos to shape her novel was truly inspiring.  I loved the idea.  I loved her collection.  Then I began to notice that the entire board mirrored all the details of my novel in progress.

My novel is already being written by someone else.  Right down to the destroyed library and the cave home.

I showed the board to Richard.

Providing the example of romance novels, he reminded me that the same story is always being written over and over again.  And that it doesn’t mean I should stop writing my particular version.   He said that what I’m writing must already be in the collective conscious.

And I agree.  A common problem in imagining a future is that we also imagine an apocalyptic catastrophe. Futuristic themes are bound up in the fantasy of “end times.”

This is why I prefer to stay grounded in the moment.  I’m less anxious in the present.  And this shows through in my character development of a woman so bound up in anxiety that she fumes with resentment on the inside.  She’s exactly what I imagine myself to be if I were in her shoes.  I would be destroyed if the world stopped meeting my expectations.  I’d surely have a breakdown.  I might follow my husband into the wild for the sake of survival, but I would hate it.  He would love the adventure, I would stop appreciating the woods in about five minutes.  I’d want to go home.

So no wonder that I’m having so much trouble. I wondered, “am I writing this book for him, through him?  Was it really my book, or the one he could be writing?”

And although I agree that it’s likely that my story would be significantly different than the one that is being written by another imaginative soul, even significantly different than the one my husband would write, I need to write as closely to myself as possible, no matter that it feels unimaginative.  The truth is that  I enjoy the regular ordinary life that is unfolding, a life that is so rich and varied that it  doesn’t need a catastrophe to highlight my appreciation for it.

And that’s okay, according to Edna Staebler.   What serendipity to encounter this writer at five am this morning, a guide arriving from the past to hold my hand through this business of writing.  My happenstance encounter with Staebler sent a jolt of recognition through me, waking me up before coffee flooded my circulation.  Staebler was born five years before my Grandma—- and in the same town of Kitchner, Ontario. She lived to be exactly 100 years old. I wonder if my grandma would have known her before moving to Michigan. Their lives would have been different; my grandma left school after third grade to help her mother, while Edna continued her education and earned a degree.  Not content to just be married, she wanted to write all her life.  Yet traditional forms such as novels, plays and poems eluded her.  So she published cookbooks, which are now considered valuable for preserving Mennonite heritage. Despite her personal disappointment in attaining a body of work within a traditional literary form, she continued to write with clarity and truth in personal journals.  Her diaries became a work  now considered worthy of literary criticism.  Her example is an echo of what Brenda Ueland believes: “if you want to write, just write what comes. The river will begin to flow in you.”

Ueland would love Stabler (did she already know of her work?)  I believe she would have celebrated Staebler’s self-directed thoughts:

“Don’t try to become, simply search. Open your heart and your eyes and your mind. Writing is feeling and observation.”

From Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries


I thought it would be like this forever…

I thought it would be like this for a long time.  My dad, alive.  My daughter, living with us.  My son, a cuddly baby.  Me, a graduate with a wider potential.


In such a few short years, this picture has changed. My father died.  My daughter entered adulthood and moved up north.  My son is a tall, athletic ten year old.

I though it would be like it was in this photo forever.

Still, it’s the love that stays constant and not the form.  We all change, and when I look back on this seven years later, I want to go back to that day.  To give longer hugs.  To tell everyone how very much it meant to me that they were here.

Paralyzed by the Freakishness of a Unique Imagination

This novel that I’m writing is getting weird.  It’s going beyond my normal experiences of life into an imaginative realm where an apocalyptic future and primitive past are melted.  I’m also planning to weave in strange occurrences that defy reality.  The more I write, the weirder things get.  And I’m paralyzed by the strangeness of it all.  I’m starting to feel like a freak.

I keep telling myself that it is important to exercise the imagination.  To only spend life enjoying movies and books written by others is kind of lazy.  If I expect my ten year old son to develop literacy skills–especially in writing, to encourage and draw out his imagination, then I must also practice.  In order to teach writing, I must also write.  When he struggles,  I can relate.  I understand how utterly frustrating it is to navigate setbacks.  We simply cannot stop writing because it is challenging.  We must go on, or become dependent upon others to write for us.  This is dangerous, because in allowing others to write for us, we allow others to think for us.

Writing practices are critical for several reasons.

First, they invite us to encounter our own thoughts externally and bring light to the thoughts that arrive from the internal, unseen and spiritual source.

Second, the practice of writing imaginatively seems in opposition to the practice of mindfulness, where we settle in to notice the smallest details of the ordinary, and thus experience beauty.  Peace.  Recovery.  But writing imaginatively is an exercise of freedom.  It is gift that no one can take from us, even if we are imprisoned or riddled with illness. The consequence of not exercising this freedom is passive conformity to convention…a seemingly comfy space where everyone agrees and no one challenges.  The scary truth is that imagination can be be washed out of us and suppressed by dominant ideology, controlling oppression and by the fear of being outcast from conventional society.  It slips away in our need to be accepted.  But it also fades when we simply stop exercising and let others imagine for us.

I admit that I have trouble exercising my imagination as an adult.

Imagination just feels like chaos. I went to school and went to work. I got married.  I was trained to look normal.  To think normal.  To behave normally.  To be efficient.

Imagination is supposed to be just for kids.  A childish thing we put away.

And after a long time of trying to be normal, I give in and reject that.  I have to because of this question:

What if regularly encountering our imagination made us better able to deal with the fear we encounter in reality?

A regular imaginative writing practice is an exercise to build internal strength.  In imagining what might happen, I encounter fear from just enough distance that I can practice dealing with it.

In reality, fear rises the moment I imagine what could happen.  So while anxiety rises and threatens to take me down, I have to stop imagining and get mindful of the present moment. Fear pulls me into circular paths of thought that disorient and make me feel small.  Fear traps me in a labyrinth of anxiety. So what helps?

If I have been exercising the practice of imaginative writing, I’m better able to see through the veil of anxious, spinning thoughts and to recognize when I’m getting carried away in “what might happen” and thus transition back into what is actually happening.  Getting in touch with imagination before fear actually appears helps me to rebound back into reality.  It helps me to notice when I’m leaving reality so I can find my way back to it.

During the writing of this novel, I encountered a character who is nearly always afraid.  Her husband’s response to her fear is a stern rejection.  Normally kind and tender in love, he can’t tolerate her fear.  He expects her to be strong and demands it for the sake of her survival.

And this makes her resentful.  She wants him to accept that she’s totally freaked out and to comfort her.  But he is not an enabler.

He practices tough love.

How many times have I expected my loved ones to be tough in the face of their own fear?  I’ve expected this from people I love so that I won’t be dashed into the abyss of their falling down.

Fear is contagious.  I don’t want to catch it.  Because I hate feeling small and vulnerable and dependent and needy.  I don’t like to ask for help or to be utterly dependent on someone else to save me.

Today, I’m making myself move through the hardening cement of a writer’s block that’s creeping in due to fear of being so unusual.

This is the precise reason why I must go on. I wish I could write lovely comfy stories with happy endings and emotionally safe and secure characters.  But they just don’t appear on the page like that.  They come to the surface holding bags of fear and rejection and uncertainty.

Just like me.


Saturday Night Skate

Do you keep an unfulfilled desire under the heap of life that has to come first?

One of these loves will pop to the surface, just when you least expect it to appear.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me a pair of royal blue roller skates for my sixth birthday.  And because we had an unfinished basement with a cement floor, I suddenly felt like the richest girl in the world.  With the gift of those skates, I had just inherited something else: my own private skating rink.  Complete with a record player and my mother’s albums; music ranging from folksy Peter Paul and Mary and John Denver to my favorite beach album: Dead Man’s Curve by Jan and Dean.

Since our basement was not as large as a real roller rink, I was continually skating around a curve, increasing my speed till I risked crashing on my own “dead man’s curve.”  In the dim light of our basement, sheltered from the ice and snow of a Michigan winter, I rolled and sweated and took flight in my heart.

Later, the actual roller rink experience during adolescence was a bigger thrill.  Colorful lights and blasting pop tunes, cute boys and girls with feathered hair that lifted like sails on a windswept lake as they glided past me in effortless strides.

I loved to skate.

One year my father made an ice rink in the back yard.  I will remember that winter forever.  And how my brother could skate backwards and perform spins and jumps.  He was athletic and intelligent and daring.  On the ice, I felt wobbly and sore; ice skating was fun but the blades required much more balance.

I should have kept on skating when I moved out and entered college.  Why was I so easily distracted from my passion?  It must have been my desperate need to fit in.  Rollerskating seemed childish and out of fashion.  Roller blades were the popular choice, but I hated them.  Wearing a pair of those early versions of rollerblades felt like strapping on downhill ski boots and trying to move gracefully.  They hurt my feet and felt all wrong.  So I abandoned my skating and went on to parties, and guys, and later, motherhood.

For a brief time, my daughter loved skating.  On Saturday nights we would go to the rink.  It was just as I remembered it, and soon I was floating and gliding like my childhood self.  I wanted that to last.  But as time went on, she lost interest and for some reason I thought it would be awkward to go to the rink by myself.

One year I discovered that there was an adult’s night at the rink.  I went by myself.  It wasn’t as fun.  The regulars had formed a group and skate danced around the rink to form a kind of rhythm train that rushed past me.  It felt intimidating so I didn’t return.

Yesterday, on a whim, I walked into a sporting goods store and found a pair of skates in my size.  I bought them on the spot.

Last night, in the rough parking lot of the nearby elementary school, I was once again the richest girl in the world, with my own private rink.  (Until two guys showed up and let their huge Irish Setter out of the car, who immediately bounded up to me while I was relearning balance…)

But otherwise, it was blissful solitude on a humid night under a wild sky.









The Slow Food Kind of Success

I am slow.

And this is healthy.

At least, that’s my excuse.  But I enjoy slow food, and slow, aimless wandering.  I like a project that takes a very long time to complete, one that involves patience and a sinking into the imagination.  Once in that state of calm, a bubbling well begins to flow.

Comparing myself to the fast track leaders gets me down.  I feel less worthy when I learn that people who started a business during the same year I did are now speaking to 800 plus people in Brazil while their book is taking flight.  I struggle when in the presence of my son’s new Tae Kwon Do instructor as he tells the story of his childhood spent practicing his sport over four hours a day and that he began teaching at age 12.  The intensity of his focus and drive unsettles me.  I just wanted Elliot to have some fun and learn a few kicks.  But now, the activity feels driven.  My son remarked after his first lesson that “Daddy will be happy to know my new teacher is STERN.”

I know the world needs success driven over-achievers.  But they make me want to hide.

My education took over a decade to complete, in bits and pieces while I mothered my children.  It was the slowest road, full of potholes and rocks and struggle.  But by the end, I had tasted the flavors of so many different institutions, met some incredibly kind professors (and some who baffled me with arrogance.)  I read some very depressing books through the lens of identity politics. They felt so far removed from my understanding of life and real relationships.  

Upon graduation, I still didn’t feel ready to take on a profession.  Business professionals intimidated me. I took a low paying job in an inner city library where gangs operated business in the computer lab.  After being assaulted by a homeless man and feeling threatened by the idea that a man was aiming his semi-automatic weapon at the library, I took a leave of absence that turned into unemployment.  Just when I should have been polishing a resume and selecting attire for interviews, the US economy fell into shambles and I lost the confidence to try.

I returned to college to work as a housekeeper, and was assigned to dust and polish the campus library.  A cowardly retreat!

During the fall convocation, new hires were introduced to faculty.  Since I had been working for several months, all of the library staff knew me.  To my utter amazement, they showered me with applause and gave me a standing ovation for my work keeping the library spotless.  After this, the college president shook my hand and asked me in a pleading voice, “please don’t leave.”

That was a fast track success moment.  I had only been on staff for six months!  

But this moment was tainted by disappointment.  I didn’t want to be the best housekeeper.  I wanted to be using my mind and my other creative abilities for something that satisfied and challenged me.  A working life that was a little messier and more social.

So even though I had experienced outstanding success in my job in less than a year, I was eager to move on to new experiences where I was immersed in learning curves and the continued experience of crossing that line between ignorance and understanding.

This means I am slow.